Issue 93: Canadian Greenhouse Study Tour

March/April – 2007
Author: Sue Korevaar

SUE KOREVAAR reports on her tour to study the North American greenhouse vegetable industry, including a look at energy, labour and food safety issues.

Our objective for this 10-day study tour was to visit greenhouse sites growing primarily tomatoes, capsicums (or peppers as they call them) and cucumbers on both sides of Canada, and to attend the Canadian Greenhouse Conference in Toronto.

A highlight of the study tour was a visit to Niagara Falls.

I may as well say at the outset, I don’t sleep on planes very well and if you consider that it took 15 flying hours from Melbourne to Los Angeles, 3 hours in LA airport waiting for a connecting flight, and a further 3 hour flight to Vancouver, then road transport to our hotel, all without any sleep, you could say I was a tad tired. However, our intrepid team leader Graeme Smith, looking bright as a button, had us all up and into the cars bright and early the next morning. Bless him.

The study tour group.

Before I go any further it would probably be a good idea to give you all an overall picture of the Canadian and US hydroponic industry.

Basically, there are two main growing areas, British Columbia (the west side) and Ontario (the east side), two vastly different growing climates each with their own individual growing challenges.

The first thing I noticed while travelling in the car, was that petrol was between 90 cents and $1.00 per litre (so much for world parity prices), and a visit to the supermarket told me that average prices for vine-ripened tomatoes was anything from $1- $2.40 per pound, around A$4.40 per kg top price. This means that growers rely heavily on economies of scale to make any money.

Double Diamond Greenhouses

Some statistics
In the delta area of British Colombia (west side) there is approximately 600 hectares of a combination of twin-skinned poly and glass houses. Lemington, arguably the tomato capital of Canada (east side), has a total area of approximately 1,500 hectares. It’s an amazing place with large scale farms closely dotted around the Lemington area. Both areas have very large farms, starting around 10 -12 hectares, with the larger growers having some 26 hectares and growing a combination of all three major crops.

Capsicum crop, Lemington.

Small grower, Delta District, BC..

Leafminer damage.

Both areas rely heavily on the US market to send their produce, with 15% going to Canadian markets and 85% to US markets, respectively. The US market demands large beefsteak tomato varieties (i.e. 250gms average), with no change in the foreseeable future.

Although tomatoes make up the major part of greenhouse hydroponic production, capsicums come in around 280 hectares, cucumbers just over 200 hectares, cocktail tomatoes 40 hectares, and mini cucs 15 – 20 hectares.

Cucumber seedling nursery.

In British Colombia, the greenhouses are primarily glass, Dutch ventlow systems; however, in Ontario there is a good spread of twin-skinned poly houses as well as glass. Having said that, there is a trend towards glass for new constructions. I asked several growers why they would choose the poly houses over glass, and it came down to a cost factor – glass is twice the price to construct compared to a poly house, and the returns do not justify the capital outlay in many cases. Sound familiar?

Interesting to note, it is the end of the season for many of the growers we visited and most were bemoaning the fact that if they were lucky they would break even this year, with costs running out at approximately 70 cents per pound and returns coming back to them at around the same price, perhaps a little better at 80 cents per pound.

There are some issues for the Canadian protected cropping industry dealing primarily with the US.

– Alternative fuels vs capital equipment
– Unstable future with the US
– Currency exchange between the two countries
– Food safety programs
– Labour issues
– Border crossing issues.

However, there are strong industry grower groups building and developing better markets/relationships with the US, and their quality to date is of a higher standard than fruit grown in and around Mexico.

Growth rate for greenhouses in Canada in the next five years will continue to displace the field product, and there are continued plans for existing large scale operations to expand.

Greenhouse market in the USA
Glass is preferred over poly. The first greenhouses started in the north, but in the 1990s there was a general trend to move further south, closer to the Mexican border, which allows them to grow all year round in these locations with access to Mexican labour.

Interestingly in the US, small family farms with less than 2,000 sqm are still quite prevalent, followed by the next level of around 2 hectares with not much in between. These miscellaneous growers make up around 30 hectares of the total greenhouse pool.

In 2005, there were 300 hectares growing tomatoes, with a breakdown as follows: 90 hectares – beefsteak; 190 hectares cluster (truss); and around 20 hectares of cocktail/specialty varieties. This compares with 1997 (still around 300 hectares), but all crops were beefsteak varieties.

Hothouse cucumbers, or seedless cucumbers as they are known in the US, are not well known or desired at this stage. Specialties – mini cucs or ‘Cool Cukes’ – are starting to become available, but are a small part of the market. Overall, the greenhouse area has stayed much the same; but as the smaller concerns go, the bigger operations take their place.

In the US, growers work on interplanting and two crops per 12-month period. Total greenhouse production in the US is 47,000 tons, which is 2% of the total fresh tomato market. Field tomatoes from Florida (18,000 ha) and California (16,000 ha), with a total production of 2.3 million tonnes, make up the lion’s share of table tomatoes in the US. The food service industry is very high and this is primarily serviced by the field tomatoes.

Grafted tomatoes make up 65% of beefsteak crops, because the rootstock has an insurance effect against Pepino Mosaic Virus (PepMV), and 95% of growers use double cropping.

Truss tomatoes in the US are called ‘Tomato-on-the-Vine’ (TOV) or cluster tomatoes, and the demand for quality hydroponic tomatoes is growing.

Possible trends in the US are niche markets (i.e., cherry, cocktail, heirlooms etc). It would seem that the returns are better and a lot of the smaller family farms are chasing this market to stay viable.

It seems to me that there is a lot of similarity between smaller growers in the US and Australia – slower growth, with some family concerns upgrading and increasing in size.

The US market is increasing protected cropping facilities by approximately 10-20 hectares per year – this is mostly in the southern parts of the US where there is more light and low humidity. There is a greenhouse complex in the southern part of the US that has over 80 hectares on one site. Labour is made up of Mexican immigrants, and 50% of the workers come from the low security Arizona jail. If the prisoners are good they get work in the greenhouses and earn a normal wage, which they can then send back to their families.

For both Canada and the US, there are agreements with the Mexican and Jamaican governments to allow workers from Mexico to come for a maximum period of eight months per year. As part of the deal, most companies supply accommodation, but not their groceries. Including all loadings, the cost of labour per hour is around $10.30 Canadian. I’m not sure what the American rate would be, but it would be similar with superannuation replaced by a retirement tax. The system works well for all concerned, as labour shortages in both countries is a big issue.

Speaking with some of the growers, all is not happy in some cases. Like all groups, you have your good and bad workers. However, if any worker does not pull his or her weight, they are given the old ‘heave ho’ back to their respective countries.

Productivity in the high-tech greenhouses is similar in both countries. Canada (British Columbia) can be as high as 75 kg per sqm using C02, interplanting and growing two crops per year. In the US, the top growers are achieving 80 kg per sqm, growing for a full 12 months of the year. However, a lot of the Canadian growers we spoke to were averaging around 50 kg per sqm.

Back to the tour
Our first visit was to Abbotsford, an open day at a 4 ha glass capsicum farm sponsored by the British Columbia Growers Association. The owner of the farm believes that 4 ha is a minimum for an operation to have critical mass. For all you techno junkies, 5m gutter, with crop wire at 3.3 m. The span is 9.6 m with six paths per span. The medium is yellow cedar sawdust, however, there is a growing trend for growers to use coir. Using gas boilers to generate heat and CO2, the grower averages around 25 kg per sqm.

4ha greenhouse facility, BC.

The grower prefers to leave rotting fruit on the floor along with any discarded vegetation to save labour. I imagine the smell would be a little off-putting in the summer months. Visually, there was plenty of grub damage – he did mention they use 100% biological controls. The farm employed 15 full-time workers, which equates to 1.5 -2 people per 4,000 sqm. The grower’s return was around $65 per sqm. He used a sand filter for cleaning the recirculating nutrient only. All packing is done by an independent and marketed by a British Colombia grower group.

The glasshouse is made by a local company with costs coming in around $6.5 million for a 4 ha turnkey facility. Labour and energy costs are the grower’s largest issues – women are hired for crop work, and men for cleaning out the crop.

The total annual farm gate sales for BC greenhouses in 2005 was +$220million. The number of people employed is more than 3,200. It is estimated that the greenhouse value to British Colombia’s economy is +$670 million per annum.

We next visited a 3 ha English cucumber glasshouse. Half the area was lit with lights. The grower aims for 450-500 gm fruit using high wire and layering. The other half of the glasshouse was unlit, lower wire/umbrella, yielding 155-160 fruit per sqm. Both sides are leaf pruned, and the plants twisted on the high wire twice a week. The media used is hemlock sawdust, but the grower is going to trial coir. Whitefly is the dominant insect pest. Interestingly, the grower had eggplant as an attraction plant.

In peak times, there are 17 workers in the crop with 30-32 people in the pack house. Mini cucumbers are packed in 500 gm bags, which seemed a lot to me; but they assured me demand for the product was high.

All the growers agreed that research centres were one of the major reasons why protected cropping has developed to the level it has.

We did manage to sightsee around the Vancouver area on Sunday, which was quite spectacular – at that time of the year some of the leaves were turning and the colours were picture postcard.

A visit to a local park and a spectacular suspension bridge over the Capilano Gorge had me experiencing a fair amount of acrophobia, however, once I was firmly in the middle of the bridge, Chris Millis decided to cause it to sway dramatically, proving how safe it was and alleviating any fears I had. What a nice guy!

Dinner at Grouse Mountain via gondola and overlooking Vancouver at night was a splendid sight. Michael, our waiter from Moonee Ponds, Victoria, gave us excellent service.

Canadian Greenhouse Conference
It was time for us to make the journey to Toronto and visit the two-day Canadian Greenhouse Conference. It was quite a large venue with over 200 trade sites in the exhibition area. Interestingly, the conference combined with the nursery industry, which is a good idea, as it reduced the price of admission for delegates to Can$30 for the two days. Of course, they didn’t supply food or the wonderful conference dinner like we do, but it is possibly the way to go for us in Australia. It’s a concept worth looking at.

Unfortunately, organizers did not supply a proceedings book, however, each guest speaker had a stapled handout of their Powerpoint presentation. It was well worth the time we spent there.

Later that day we drove south to Lemington, touted as the tomato capital of Canada. Lemington is also the home of the Heinz processing plant, located in the centre of town, with 17,000 acres of tomatoes grown under contract at a yield of 60 tonnes per acre. Bacterial canker is rife in the outdoor crops, which affects the indoor crop via the wind. Pepino Mosaic Virus is a problem in every tomato crop.

Yellow specialty clusters.
The first site we visited was Double Diamond, which has 20 acres of tomatoes, 4 acres ‘cucs’, and 26 acres of capsicum. The main tomato crop was, of course, beefsteak, the variety being half ‘Macarana’ and the other half ‘Big Deena’. The yield is approximately 52 kg/sqm with a plant density of 9,600 plants per acre.

The Double Diamond greenhouse facility produces tomatoes, cucumbers and capsicum.

Bumblebees were everywhere and I honestly believe if they had to manually pollinate, then the tomato sector of the industry would not be viable. Growers use 6-7 hives per week and the hives are left in the greenhouse to die out. They do not spread into the wild and if they do, it seems that they cannot survive the winters. There are three workers per acre used for tomato production, and two workers per acre for cucumbers.

Bumblebee pollination.

I guess because it is so topical at the moment in Australia, I was quite fascinated by the bumblebees, which were used throughout all the tomato crops we visited. Generally, the usage was around 200 hives per 10 acres.

Energy and labour issues
Cost of energy is a major issue, with current costs of natural gas being around $9 per Gj; however, there is a big trend to go to wood waste, which brings down the cost of heating (including labour to man the heater 24/7) to approximately $3.50 per Gj.

Natural gas boiler.

Wood waste delivery system.

From a labour perspective they had approximately 44 people working in the greenhouse with another 15 in the packhouse during the summer period. This was for tomatoes only. For capsicum production, the labour component in the greenhouses was approximately 50 people covering 26 acres. Because PepMV is so prevalent, workers are constantly disinfecting their hands after every plant, using a disinfectant called Vercon. With regard to the tomatoes, they are picked at quarter colour, due to the transport time expended to get them to the USA.

Overall, when we spoke to growers throughout Canada, their biggest issues were energy (temperatures drop to minus 15 degrees C with snow cover in the winter), high transport costs, and labour. It was very difficult to get any Canadian labour with more than 80% of the workforce coming from Mexico. This posed additional workloads to most managers, and the cheap labour did not come without some headaches.

Food safety
Other points of interest were that food safety programs required all entry and exit points to the greenhouses be locked 24/7. At Double Diamond, they did not leave any leaf material on the ground, indeed, they used a vacuum which ran along the pipes to collect any debris. By comparison, it takes approximately 54 man-hours to sweep the floors, but only 34 man-hours using the manned machine.

Vacuum cleaning machinery.

A lot of the properties we visited used golf carts and bicycles to navigate the site, and many had a small toilet block in the middle of walk-ways in the greenhouses. Good thinking, from a labour-saving perspective.

Internal toilet facilities.

Most polyhouses replaced 1/4 of their plastic every year, which of course means they are continually replacing their plastic, with a general expectation that the plastic would be replaced every four years.

Market realities
As I mentioned earlier, this year has not been kind to many of the tomato growers. To give readers an indication of returns, at Prism Farm, which produces both beefsteak and cherry tomatoes, the grower admitted that prices were somewhat lacking this year. Production costs were approximately $6-7 per tray, but during the summer period they were only getting a return of $4-5 per tray. Late winter did produce some better figures of approximately $16 per tray. This meant that cost of production was approximately 80 cents per pound of tomatoes, but the grower only achieved a return of 90 cents per pound. How familiar does this sound at the moment? The grower went on to say that the reason for some of the lower prices, was the chain stores wanted to make more profit with less volume. This meant the higher prices forced a glut through low consumer demand. Hello, some things just don’t change, even in different hemispheres.

Specialty tomato packaging.

For lunch that day, we went to a unique property which used to be a nursery producing potted plants. Unfortunately, there did not seem to be much money in this venture, so the grower converted his glasshouses to a restaurant, with quite a few gift shops. His old glasshouse is the restaurant area with large seating volumes and several huge fichus trees for shelter. Interestingly, these trees looked in tip top condition and when we asked what he did to keep them so healthy, he simply prunes them when required and sprays them once a week with a diluted sunlight dishwashing liquid as an insecticide. All the indoor plants looked fantastic, so go figure. He did sell local hydro produce, with all proceeds going to local charities. The whole operation was very innovative and quite impressive. The male members in our group enjoyed the all-you-can-eat concept of the restaurant.

Harrow research facility
Later that day we visited the Harrow research facility, which is the largest dedicated greenhouse research facility for greenhouse and processing crops in Northern America. Crops on trial were organic cucumbers and tomatoes. Unfortunately, the results were not complete, but it would be interesting to find out if it was viable.

Other research concepts under study include the idea of pumping foam in between the two layers of poly to filter out high light conditions. It was quite impressive to watch. It seems that when the foam was not required, they used water to disperse the foam in a recirculating system. The shading effect was approximately 36-40% with a thermal saving of approximately 50-60%.

Another grad student was researching the possibility of using bumblebees to spread agents for fungal control.

Italian connection
Finally, on the last day in Lemington, we visited a capsicum/cucumber farm consisting of 12 acres. The owner, Albert Mastronadi, is a first generation Canadian from an Italian background. It was interesting to note that approximately 70% of the greenhouse district is from Italian descent, many from the same Italian village called Villa Canale, which is in the Molise region.

Albert was in the process of commissioning the biggest damm boiler/heater I had ever seen. Again, for you techno gurus, it was a 6 Mw Vynche boiler fuelled with wood waste. Albert believes his $2 million investment (inclusive of building infrastructure) will pay for itself in five years. He has budgeted to use the boiler/heater for approximately 165 days a year, and believes with an additional 12 acres the boiler will be well worth all the effort and cost. Even with wood waste costing him $40-50 per tonne, he believes it to be a good investment. Currently, Albert is paying $9 per Gj for natural gas and expects the wood waste system to decrease his costs to $4 per Gj.

Wood waste Vynche boiler.

Boiler wood waste material.

Wood waste delivery system.

We were now on the tail end of our trip, so with this in mind we made quite a large detour to visit Niagara Falls. Well worth it, the view was one of the most spectacular I had ever encountered. Awesome!

Niagara Falls, Canada.

Final remarks
In conclusion, our trip was well worth the effort and I congratulate Graeme Smith and the Australian Hydroponic & Greenhouse Association (AHGA) for organizing the whole event, which went very smoothly from start to finish.

I would like to thank all of the growers we visited in Canada, who to a man/woman were very forthcoming with their information and hospitality. I would also like to single out Rijk Zwaan, who generously took us out to dinner one night (all seed prices are set to rise) and then took the time to show us around many of the greenhouse establishments in Lemington. Thank you John Hughie, Gus Mastronardi and Roelf Schreuder, for your generous gift of time.

A big thank you to Graeme Smith, who worked tirelessly to make sure our days were filled with places of interest to visit. I can say with absolute conviction that there was not a lot of time to check out some of the really important venues (such as the department stores and specialty shops), but I did come away with a whole new perspective of this industry. I am sure that in the not too distant future, the progress I saw in Canada will be emulated here in Australia. Indeed, it is happening now.

I would also like to thank the Hydroponic Farmers Federation (HFF), who sponsored some of my trip. In the New Year, I will be giving a talk to some growers at a HFF grower meeting on some of the many interesting aspects of the Canadian hydroponic industry. I guarantee not to bore you all.

Finally, to my fellow travellers, Graeme and Jo Smith, Mark and Chris Millis, Horst Sjostedt, Anthony Brandsema (who helped with some of the information with this article), and Mark Lines, a big thank you. I enjoyed our sojourn together immensely.

About the author
Sue Korevaar is a greenhouse tomato grower based in Bittern, Victoria, and President of the Hydroponic Farmers Federation. Sue is also an Australian distributor of the Bloom Master Hanging Baskets and Planters, and a regular contributor to PH&G.

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